Critique your work like a boss.

One of the most effective ways to raise the quality of a design team’s work is to hold regular, meaningful critiques. It’s more difficult than it looks to ensure that everyone provides quality feedback, as well as keeping the group focused on the work (not the person).

Photo by Štefan Štefančík on Unsplash

Now, I know that some people don’t like the word critique. And I get it… after all, that word can sound pretty negative. Perhaps a better label might be design review. Good for you? Works for me as well—let’s move forward!

Design is a process of ideation, iteration, and final execution. The critique is immensely useful in that middle ground—the slog from idea to solution.

The purpose of a critique is to solicit feedback on what’s working, and what could be improved. This feedback should come from your design teammates first. If you want to level up, solicit feedback from those who don’t work directly with you. Maybe even one of those engineers you work with.

When you’ve been heads down, working on a project for a significant amount of time, it can be difficult to pop out of your bubble and identify problems. Have you seen the state of politics in America? Then you know what I mean by bubble. This is where “outsiders” can provide valuable feedback.

Critique participants could even be (gasp) non–designers like engineers, business people, or users of your product / service. Do you even Pantone, bro?

These review sessions are a great way to build trust within a team. It’s kind of like healthcare—everyone needs to participate in order for the economics of it to work. If you’re leading the critique, you can’t let someone just opt out of the mandate to participate! Your job is to facilitate the exchange of feedback and ideas, and to make sure things stay focused on the work (not the person).

Ground rules

Here are some of my personal rules for setting yourself and your team up for success. I’m sure that other designers have different rules of thumb, but I’m pretty confident these should help set you on the right path.

Agree to disagree

Part of critiquing each other’s work is accepting that you may not agree with someone else’s decision. Even when you disagree, it will help you (and the team) to understand why someone made a particular decision. Critiques should be respectful, yet honest sessions where meaningful feedback is exchanged.

Describe the problem

It’s the presenter’s job to articulate what the problem is, where they are in the process, and if they’re looking for any specific feedback. The more context that you can provide, the better. You’ll save yourself lots of time if you tell everyone, for example, “Yes, I have to include beige in this screen. Somewhere. My art director made me do it, I’m sorry.”

Give specific feedback

This is a very, very important part of providing meaningful feedback. It must be specific, with reasons as to why you do / don’t like something. There’s little value in piping up with something like “I don’t like the color beige.” I’ll let you in on a little secret — no one does! But that doesn’t mean you can verbalize it like that. Instead, you could say expound on this opinion, with something like:

“I’m not a big fan of beige as the background color. I feel like it makes the whole page feel a bit drab and muted. Have you looked at different backgrounds, or tried the beige somewhere else—perhaps buried in the footer?”

Ask questions

Now, you just communicated that you don’t like beige, and you asked a great question. Questions are a sure–fire way to engage the presenter. It’s a great technique to draw out the thinking behind a decision, and gives the presenter a chance to articulate their reasoning. As a participant in a critique, it’s your job to ask questions.

Check your ego at the door

As the presenter, now is not the time to push back. If you shut someone down while they’re giving you feedback, you not only hurt yourself, but you hurt your team’s ability to be open and honest with each other. Remember that you’re all working toward a common goal (producing amazing, award–winning work). If you react defensively, you jeopardize the safe space that your team has worked hard to cultivate.

Solicit feedback online

The internet is an amazing place, and there are a lot of communities out there where you can engage a wider audience for feedback (if you are able to share your work publicly—check with your boss first!) For example, you could post work in progress on Dribbble, and you’ll receive feedback from designers all around the world. Or perhaps you share it in a Facebook group.

Drop me a line if you know of other communities that would be good to reference.

Ugh, this sounds like so much work

You know what—it is. However, life is work kid. Now get off my lawn and go critique your work! Regular, meaningful critiques are so worth. You can hit many birds with one stone in your team critiques (tangent: who came up with that saying? Such violence against birds. Maybe they got pooped on by a pigeon one too many times).

One of the biggest hurdles for a junior designer to overcome is the tendency to stop after just a few iterations on a design. Hey boss, I solved the problem in record time! I’m going to go pat myself on the back, crack open a beer, and declare victory. Wrong!

One of the best pieces of advice that I picked up in design school was “come up with thirty solutions to any design problem.” Thirty variations! You must be insane, professor, I thought to myself. No, they weren’t insane—just an evil genius for sure.

If you’re designing a brand identity, you better believe you’re coming up with thirty variations. Next, you’re going to do thirty more. This is before you even think about presenting to your client. And what do you do well before you ever get to that stage?

You grab your fellow designers, that one engineer who always has an opinion about beige, the office manager, the office dog, and you go critique that work!